Bruce Brown, the iconic documentary film maker who is best known to motorcyclists for producing the classic motorcycling movie “On Any Sunday”, died Sunday. The news was announced today on his website, www.brucebrownfilms.com
He was 80.
“On Any Sunday” is generally acknowledged as the best movie ever made about motorcycles and motorcycle racing. It helped spur the explosive growth of motorcycling during the 1970s. Brown’s movie conveyed the fun and enjoyment that motorcycling added to people’s lives. It also documented the 1970 season of AMA Grand National racing by following defending champion Mert Lawwill. Many people from all walks of life took up motorcycling after seeing “On Any Sunday.” The movie was critical success as well, being nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Feature film.
Brown was born in San Francisco on December 1, 1937. He grew up in Southern California, attending school in Long Beach before moving to Dana Point. Brown first earned acclaim for his groundbreaking surfing movie, “Endless Summer,” which was released in 1966.
Brown never had formal training in filmmaking, and he says that probably worked to his advantage.
“We probably did a lot of things that were pretty unconventional. I doubt I would have taken the same approach had I gone to film school,” Brown said.
Even though Brown already had a successful movie to his credit, he found that financing a film on motorcycling wasn’t going to be easy.
“I talked to a few folks and knew that Steve McQueen was a rider,” Brown said. “Even though I’d never met him, I set up a meeting to talk about doing ‘On Any Sunday.’ We talked about the concept of the film, which he really liked. Then he asked what I wanted him to do in the film. I told him I wanted him to finance it. He laughed and told me he acted in films, he didn’t finance them. I then jokingly told him, ‘Alright, then, you can’t be in the movie.’
“The next day after the meeting, I got a call and it was McQueen. He told me to go ahead and get the ball rolling with movie — he’d back it.”
“On Any Sunday” seemed to strike a chord with youngsters. Kids would hide in movie theater bathrooms between showings so they could watch the film two or three times in one day. Thousands of kids across the country started saving money from their paper routes and summer jobs to buy a minibike after being inspired by the movie.
“I think many people changed their minds about motorcyclists after watching the movie,” Brown said. “One particularly funny story was told by Mert Lawwill. Being a motorcycle racer, he was sort of considered the Black Sheep of the family. The old matriarch of the family, Lawwill’s grandmother-in-law, went to see the movie and in the middle of one of the scenes featuring Lawwill she stood up and shouted, ‘That’s my grandson!’ Suddenly he was the big hero of the family.”
Many racers credited the movie with really helping their careers. Malcolm Smith, who was also a major focus of the film, credits “On Any Sunday” with giving him the worldwide recognition that enabled him to become a leading entrepreneur in the off-road motorcycling business.
Brown was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999
Memorial service details are pending.
Bruce Brown talks about the challenges of getting national distribution for his movie “On Any Sunday” in a 2000 interview with Larry Lawrence.